John Wilson's long poem, The City of the Plague came to Alexander Pushkin as a revelation. He proceeded from it for the verse tragedy, A Feast During the Plague, written in his famous autumn at Boldino.
Pushkin made 500 miles from Moscow in a rush, stopping only to change horses. Dog-tired, thickly smeared in highway dust, he reached his family seat - at last! That was September 16, 1830.
The Pushkins had owned Boldino, in the Nizhni Novgorod province on the Volga, since the 16th century. The estate came to the family from Ivan the Terrible in reward for loyal service - which meant something, considering that the Tsar was hard to please, putting it very mildly.
With Alexander's betrothal, his father gave him into possession a part of ancestral landed and other property, and two hundred serf families. The poet now was a country squire on his own.
He did not mean to stay long on what was now his estate.
Fate deemed otherwise. A cholera epidemic was sweeping Russia, and many provinces were put on quarantine. Pushkin remained stranded in Boldino into late autumn. No poet could desire a better respite for writing.
It was drizzling day in, day out. Trees were shedding foliage in the luxuriant park. The rustle of falling golden leaves blended with the melancholy tune of the rain. Pushkin was snuggling at his tiny desk, a serf cabinet-maker's endeavour, a three-candle candelabra on it. He was writing with a stub of a quill - he had always preferred stubs. The three autumn months brought several dozen superb pieces in verse and prose. The two words "Boldino autumn" have since become a set phrase in Russian for a flight of inspiration.
Pushkin came to Boldino full of foreboding. Anguish was gnawing at his heart - he was parting with his merry bachelor routine. Nathalie Goncharoff, his fiancee, was waiting in the cholera-besieged Moscow. A lady of rare and exquisite beauty, still in her late teens, she had won his passionate love. The poet received her hand in marriage after a courtship of many trials and tribulations. The Goncharoffs were an impoverished family. He was taking Nathalie dowerless, and so had to get his own affairs going.
Yearning for his affianced bride, worldly chores, thoughts about past and present, philosophical ponderings on the meaning of this life - all found expression in verse. The brilliant short poem, "The Devils" appeared five days after his arrival to embody in tuneful word the author's nightmarish visions and bleak presentiments. Written the same day, "An Elegy", one of Pushkin's peak achievements, came as poetic confession of his innermost hopes - "I want a life of reflection and suffering <...> I shall yet shed tears over inventions of the human mind." Pushkin took heart once his cherished thoughts poured out on paper. "These parts are sheer delight. Plains stretching to all sides, no neighbours all around. I am free to ride about the country or sit writing at home to my heart's content," he said in a letter to Peter Pletnev, man of letters and his friend.
He was writing in never-passing ecstasy. In another letter to Pletnev, Pushkin said, with understandable pride: "I had not been so productive for a long time as I am now at Boldino. The two concluding chapters of Eugene Onegin, 8 and 9, a total 400 lines or so, are ready for print <...> There are several drama scenes, or short tragedies - The Covetous Knight, Mozart and Salieri, A Feast During the Plague, and Don Juan. There are also about thirty short poems, and five novellas in prose - and that is not all." By "not all" Pushkin meant wonderful fairy tales, which children enjoy to this day.
He made breaks in his work only for meals and strolls.
Pushkin would wake early and, after morning coffee, work till lunch reclining in bed - his preferred way of writing. For lunch, he would have potatoes or buckwheat porridge straight from the oven - a simple but delicious and nourishing diet. Then he went away walking or riding till dusk. He was "searching in the universe" for melodious rhymes on his outings.
The landlord's house was neglected - no one of the Pushkins had been putting up there for several generations - but as soon as he crossed the creaky threshold, the poet found himself in a gorgeous park stretching to the horizon. Crossing it was a linden alley with an elaborate garden seat at the end. That exquisite piece of 18th century cabinet-making won Pushkin's heart, and gave his imagination rich food for the most delightful scenes in his works. He spent hours sitting there, his gaze wandering in the steppeland vistas.
Maria, heroine of his novella The Blizzard, was snuggling in a garden seat like his when dashing hussar Burmin apprehended the young lady for a dramatic declaration of love, which crowned the tragic story with its happy end. The youthful Tatiana Larina was hiding on a similar garden seat amid dense lilac shrubbery as Eugene Onegin found her to shower the girl with reprimands after she trustfully sent him a letter of love.
Pushkin loved another spot, too-a summerhouse at a pond in the heart of the old park. Weeping willows bathed their branches in the water, resembling water nymphs' flowing hair. The poet spent long hours there, lost in reverie, which found expression in his fantastic tales. The fanciful shape of a hilltop tree nearby resembled to his imaginative eye a caballero wrapped in a cloak, a broad-brimmed feathered hat pulled down on his brow. The figure soon appeared in the margin of the rough copy of his tragedy, The Stone Guest, another of the world's many inspired versions of Don Juan's awesome end.
Travelling all the way to Boldino with him was an English volume, The Poetical Works of Milman, Bowls, Wilson and Barry Cornwall, one of Pushkin's favourite books. He translated several pieces from it, suffice it to mention the exquisite poem, "From Barry Cornwall."
Nothing in the volume caught his fancy more than John Wilson's poem, The City of the Plague, due to its literary merits and the actual situation alike, cholera raging all over Russia.
One scene in the poem came to Pushkin as a profound shock, with its penetrating power of psychological insight-drunken revelry at tables laden in the streets of a plague-scourged city. The Russian poet started with a translation from the English. He then extended it into a tragedy of his own, A Feast During the Plague.
It became part of a cycle of short plays under the common title, Little Tragedies. Those were The Stone Guest, A Feast During the Plague, The Covetous Knight, and Mozart and Salieri - the latter an enigmatic philosophical work, based on the rumour of the envious Salieri poisoning Mozart.
"Genius and crime never go together," Mozart says in Pushkin's tragedy. "You really think so?" retorts Salieri as he puts poison in Mozart's goblet.
The theme of Fate underlies everything Pushkin wrote that autumn in Boldino. His "Verse Made on a Sleepless Night" appeared in his dreary, desolate house to the wail of the wind and rueful cries of birds of passage flocking before departure. Pushkin was arguing with Fate all his life long. In that poem, his anguished queries and reproofs reached a heart-rending height.
He was defenceless against doom, and always aware of it.
"There is no escape from Fates," he wrote in the long poem, The Gypsies, at the age of twenty four, six years before the glorious autumn in Boldino. Another six years passed-and Pushkin received a fatal bullet in a duel with Georges d'Anthes, whom he confronted in defence of his calumniated wife's honour - and his own.
After the memorable season of 1830, Pushkin came to Boldino on another two autumns, a settled paterfamilias. Both occasions brought him plenteous literary masterpieces, which provided him a steady income to his dying day, and made his four children rich men and women when he was no more.
The Boldino manuscripts are giving literary scholars ample food even today. Experts break lances in the interpretation of every line, every comma and full stop, and every spontaneous sketch in the margins that came from the flit pen of Russia's greatest genius.